Note: This essay is included in the anthology Rational Egoism: The Morality for Human Flourishing, which makes an excellent gift and is available at Amazon.com.
Purpose is one of the most important values in human life. It is the value that answers the question “What for?”—the value that motivates us to think, strive, and thrive—the value by reference to which we focus our minds, direct our actions, and pursue our goals.
And it is under assault by advocates of religion.
Religionists bastardize the concept of “purpose” (and the related concept of “meaning”) in an effort to convince people—often the young—that there can be no objective purpose in life unless it comes ultimately from God.
“If there is no God,” writes theologian William Lane Craig, “there is no purpose” and “there can be no objective meaning in life.”1
Pastor Rick Warren writes, “Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning.”2
Dennis Prager claims, “If there is no God who designed the universe and who cares about His creations, life is ultimately purposeless,” and “there is no objective meaning to life.”3
Ben Shapiro elaborates, “God expects things of us . . . He has standards for our behavior . . . He demands our holiness”—and “His standards of truth matter, not our own.” Thus, having a “moral purpose” consists in “living the life God wants for [us]”—the life God laid out for us “through a series of rules to be found in His holy book.” And, Shapiro emphasizes, according to the Bible, living this way is not morally optional; it is morally mandatory: “As King Solomon concludes in Ecclesiastes, the purpose of human existence is simple: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”4
Why is this our duty? Why must we obey God’s commandments and live the life he wants for us? Pastor Warren answers: “You exist only because God wills that you exist. You were made by God and for God. . . . It is only in God that we discover our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance, and our destiny.”5
What about personal fulfillment? What if you want to live in accordance with your own judgment and embrace purposes of your own choosing—purposes such as a career that you love and that challenges you and rewards your efforts; recreational activities and friendships that fuel your soul; a romantic relationship full of love, laughter, and pleasure; dreams and ambitions that motivate you constantly to strive, improve, and enjoy life all the more? In other words, what if you want the purpose of your life to be the achievement of your own happiness? After all, it is your life. Shouldn’t the purpose of your life be about you?
Not according to religion. As pastor Warren writes:
It’s not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.6
What does it mean to live for God’s purpose? How exactly does one do this? Pastor Warren explains:
To fulfill your mission will require that you abandon your agenda and accept God’s agenda for your life. . . . You must say, like Jesus, “Father, . . . I want your will, not mine.” You yield your rights, expectations, dreams, plans, and ambitions to him. You stop praying selfish prayers like “God bless what I want to do.” Instead you pray, “God help me to do what you’re blessing!” You hand God a blank sheet with your name signed at the bottom and tell him to fill in the details. The Bible says, “Give yourselves completely to God—every part of you . . . to be tools in the hands of God, to be used for his good purposes.”7
Such is the nature of purpose according to religion: God exists, he created you, he has standards for your behavior, and he has a purpose for your life. Thus, you have a “duty” to abandon your agenda, obey his commands, be a tool for his purposes, and live the life he wants for you. “This is the whole duty of man.”
But this is not the “duty” of man. This is not the nature of purpose. And it is crucial to understand what is wrong with these ideas, to reject them, and to expose them as the dangerous nonsense that they are.
A purpose is the reason or intention for which an action is taken or a thing is created or used. For instance, my purpose in writing this article is to clarify the secular source and vital importance of purpose. The purpose of a sermon is to convey the word of “God.” The purpose of a car is to transport people or goods. The purpose of friendship is to enjoy each other’s company and the fruits of mutual interests, respect, and affection.
One of the most important purposes in a person’s life is his career or the work he does. And the meaning of a person’s work can be profound. Consider, for example, the career goals and achievements of a few figures of note.
Andrew Carnegie sought to improve the ways in which businesses and business activities are integrated so as to make them extremely efficient, productive, and profitable. When he turned his focus and aim to the steel industry, he created one of the most profitable and life-serving businesses in history. Carnegie Steel Company fueled industrialization and the construction of modern America, and Carnegie’s management techniques and inventions changed the way businesses are integrated and operated to this day.8
Louis Pasteur is most widely known for his invention of pasteurization, which is crucial to the preservation and safety of dairy products and other foods. But Pasteur did much more than that. He also made several important discoveries in chemistry, launched the fields of microbiology and immunology, cured multiple diseases, and developed the first vaccines for rabies and anthrax.9
Katharine Hepburn was a leading lady in Hollywood for more than six decades, starring in movies such as Little Women (1933), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The African Queen (1951), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), and On Golden Pond (1981). In addition to delighting and moving audiences by doing work she loved and doing it her way, she received a record four Academy Awards for Best Actress and was named by the American Film Institute “the greatest female star of Classic Hollywood Cinema.”10
Ayn Rand wrote some of the most profound and philosophically rich novels of all time, including The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She also created the philosophy of Objectivism, “a philosophy for living on earth.” In the course of creating it, she solved several perennial and pressing problems in the history of philosophy, including “the problem of universals” (how concepts are formed and what they refer to) and the “is–ought problem” (how moral principles, including individual rights, are derived from perceptual reality).
Each of these individuals was extremely purpose driven. Each lived a rich, productive, fulfilling life. And each left the world a better place.
Did they hand God a blank sheet with their names signed at the bottom and tell him to fill in the details? Hardly. All of them were atheists—as were and are countless other purposeful and productive people. Other well-known atheists include Thomas Edison, Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruce Lee, Richard Branson, John Cleese, Ricky Gervais, Julia Sweeney, Albert Ellis, Jonathan Haidt, Abraham Maslow, Emma Thompson, Thandie Newton, Oscar Wilde, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Minchin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Clarence Darrow, Keira Knightley, Richard Feynman, and many more.
Of course, not all atheists are rational, rights-respecting people. And not everyone with aims embraces rational, rights-respecting purposes. Some people—including some atheists and religionists—pursue irrational, rights-violating, even massively destructive aims. Mao Tse-tung sought to impose communism on the people of China and murdered upwards of seventy million people in the process. Adolf Hitler sought to impose national socialism on the people of Germany (and ultimately the world) and to prop up so-called Aryans as the “master race”; in the process, he orchestrated the murder of approximately six million Jewish people and eleven million people of other races. Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro sought to impose socialism on the people of Venezuela and drove them into poverty, mass suffering, and early graves (this continues today, so the total destruction is not yet known). Osama bin Laden sought to impose Islam on the world and orchestrated the murder, rape, and submission of countless men, women, and children in the name of Allah. With that same aim, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the 9/11 hijackers sought to murder as many “infidel” Americans as possible by flying passenger jets into government buildings and skyscrapers full of people.
Did these monsters have “purposes”? In a sense, they did. They had evil purposes.
What distinguishes moral purposes from evil ones? This question goes to the crux of the matter at hand.
The fundamental difference between a moral purpose and an immoral purpose is that the former is based on, or consonant with, the principle that the requirements of human life and happiness constitute the standard of moral value; the latter is not. Because human beings are individuals, this standard pertains to individuals—including all individuals. It means that the good is that which advances an individual’s life and happiness without violating the rights of other individuals to their lives or the pursuit of their happiness (so, without murdering them, assaulting them, or physically forcing them to act against their own judgment). Consequently, this standard is incompatible with standards such as “the good of the community,” “the good of society,” “the good of the race,” or “the will of God”—all of which place something over and above the life and the rights of the individual.
The principle that in order for human values or moral evaluations to be correct, they must be consonant with the factual requirements of human life and happiness was discovered and elucidated by Ayn Rand.11 This principle is derived from observation and logic; thus, it is demonstrably true.12 (Look and see.) And because it is true, it is the objective standard by reference to which we can judge a given purpose as moral or immoral.
God’s will logically cannot dictate a proper purpose because God does not exist—which is why (a) there is no evidence for his existence, and (b) no one has ever provided such evidence. That for which there is no evidence cannot rationally be said to exist, much less to dictate a proper purpose or to be an objective standard of morality.
And given the many atrocities and rights violations that God commits and commands in religious scripture, it’s a good thing he doesn’t exist. For example, in the Bible, God deliberately drowns practically everyone on earth13 and calls for the murder of blasphemers,14 infidels,15 homosexuals,16 and children who curse or disobey their parents.17 He also condones slavery18 and rape.19 Likewise, in the Koran, God calls for the murder of unbelievers 20 and for making sex slaves of their wives and daughters.21
Religionists advise you to “hand [that] God a blank sheet with your name signed at the bottom and tell him to fill in the details”?! Imagine the monster you might become if you did.
Neither God nor religion is (or can be) the source of moral purpose in your life. The source of such purpose is your reasoning mind.
Whereas there is no evidence for the existence of God, there is a world of evidence supporting the principle that, if we want to live and flourish, we must choose and pursue purposes rationally: We must look at reality; discover the requirements of our life and happiness; choose our preferences and purposes from within the vast range of rational, life-serving, rights-respecting options; and pursue them with everything we have. This is the way—and the only way—to choose and pursue morally correct purposes.
“But,” religionists will argue, “your rational, secular approach to purpose doesn’t answer the question ‘What is the purpose of life?’”22 About this they will be right. (But they won’t like the reason.)
The question, “What is the purpose of life?” is logically invalid. It’s a classic case of the fallacy of the loaded question. As Ayn Rand observed:
It smuggles in a wrong answer. The question should be: “What is the purpose of your life?”—“What is the purpose of my life?”—“What is the purpose of each particular individual about whom we inquire?” But not: “What is the purpose of life?” Asked that way, it seems to imply that somebody outside of us—naturally some “supernatural” being—is the one who has to prescribe that purpose, and we should spend our life trying to find it out and then live up to it. There is no such thing as “the purpose of life” [in that sense], because life is an end in itself.
Life is the purpose of life. . . . You should enjoy your life. You should be happy in it. Your proper, moral obligation is to pursue the highest form of happiness possible to you. . . . Any person who attempts to prescribe—not even enforce, just prescribe—the happiness of other people is a monster and has no claim to morality at all.23
You live once. Then you die, and your life is over forever. Your life—including all of the values, experiences, efforts, achievements, and relationships that make up your life—properly matters more to you than anything else in the world. The moral question to ask yourself is not “How can I be a tool in the hands of God?”—but “How can I make my life the best, happiest life it can be?”
Moral purpose is life-serving, rights-respecting purpose. And your means of identifying, choosing, and pursuing such purpose is your reasoning mind.
Use it and thrive.
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1. William Lane Craig, “The Absurdity of Life without God,” https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/existence-nature-of-god/the-absurdity-of-life-without-god/.
2. Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 30.
3. Dennis Prager, “Secularism and the Meaningless Life,” Orthodoxy Today, May 31, 2005, http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/PragerMeaningSecularism.php; “If There Is No God,” Dennis Prager Show, August 19, 2008, https://www.dennisprager.com/if-there-is-no-god/.
4. Ben Shapiro, The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great (New York: Broadside Books, 2019), 34–35.
5. Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, 18. It’s worth noting the non sequitur here. Even if God did exist, and even if he made you, it wouldn’t follow that you must live the life he wants for you. Your parents made you, and you have no moral obligation to live the life they want for you. You are a sovereign being with a mind and free will, and you can think and choose for yourself. And, according to rational morality, if you choose to live, you have a moral responsibility to think and choose for yourself.
6. Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, 17.
7. Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, 286.
8. See Scott Holleran, “Andrew Carnegie: The Richest Man in the World,” The Objective Standard 5, no. 4 (Winter 2010): 47.
9. See Ross England, “Louis Pasteur: A Light That Brightens More and More,” The Objective Standard 8, no. 4 (Winter 2013): 49.
10. See Katharine Hepburn, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katharine_Hepburn.
11. See Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet, 1957); and “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1962).
12. For a brief indication of how the principle is derived, see my article “Secular, Objective Morality: Look and See,” The Objective Standard 12, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 47. For a lengthier discussion, including a fleshed-out explanation of the so-called is–ought problem, see my book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts That Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002), especially chapter 2, “The Is–Ought Gap: Subjectivism’s Technical Retreat,” and chapter 3, “To Be or Not To Be: The Basic Choice.”
13. Genesis 6:7.
14. Leviticus 24:16.
15. Deuteronomy 13:6–9.
16. Leviticus 20:13.
17. Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18–21.
18. Leviticus 25:44, Deuteronomy 15:12.
19. Deuteronomy 22:28–29, Numbers 31:15–18. Lest anyone claim that such commandments are found only in the Old Testament, bear in mind that the Old Testament is as much a part of Christianity as is the New Testament. According to Christianity, there is one God, and all of his laws, including those spelled out in the Old Testament, must be upheld. The New Testament is crystal clear about this. In the words of Jesus: “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the [Old Testament] Law to become void” (Luke 16:17). And: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17–19).
20. Al-Baqarah 2:191, At-Tawbah 9:5.
21. An-Nisa 4:24, Al-Ahzab 33:50.
22. E.g., see Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “What is the Purpose of Life?,” TorahCafe, https://www.torahcafe.com/rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks/7-what-is-the-purpose-of-life-video_ad898c862.html; and William Lane Craig, “What Is The Purpose and Meaning of Life Without God?,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKWKdiwDEcM. Regarding the latter, William Lane Craig’s claim that if the universe has no purpose, then you can’t have an ultimate purpose is ridiculous. It’s like standing on a rock and saying, “If this rock has no purpose, then I can’t have an ultimate purpose.” Likewise, his claim to the effect that if life is not eternal—if it ends—then it is meaningless, makes no sense. That’s like saying, “If this article ends, then it’s meaningless.”
23. Excerpted from Ayn Rand’s radio interview with Raymond Newman on The Raymond Newman Journal, 1980.